Color Space

Red, Yellow and Blue are not the "primary" colors!

A "primary color" is defined as a color that cannot be made by mixing any other colors together.

Ever since I was little, I was frustrated that I could never mix a nice purple color from red and blue, even though all my teachers, and textbooks and other sources say this is possible. Purple was my favorite color, but when I mixed red and blue, I got a muddy brown color. Add more red, and it was reddish brown. Add more blue and it was bluish brown.

When I learned to airbrush in highschool, I gave up and bought a striking hot pink, and used that to mix with blue to make a deep, deep purple. I gave up on red altogether.

Later, when I was 23, I worked in a little computer company in Greenville SC, and there worked with a friend on a driver for a color printer. This was the moment that I finally learned about "additive primaries" and "subtractive primaries."

I discovered that Red, Green and Blue were the "additive primaries" -- the primary colors of light. The more you add together, the closer you get to white. Cyan, Magenta and Yellow are the "subtractive primaries" -- the primary colors of pigment. The more you add together, the closer you get to black.

I was so excited about learning this truth that I was struck dumb for a half hour. I felt so deceived by my teachers -- and still this idea of Red, Yellow and Blue being the primary colors for paints continues. Who started this fallicy?? I'd sure like to know!

Red can be made by mixing magenta and yellow. Blue -- true blue, since many paints are really cyan but darker -- can be made by mixing cyan and magenta. Try it! It's really true! So when I was mixing purple, I was really mixing yellow and magenta, and cyan and magenta: one part each of yellow, cyan and magenta make black, plus another part magenta makes a muddy brown color, depending on the mixes for the red and blue. Paint sets can often get away with a dark cyan for blue. Also -- except for purple -- the colors one would make with cyan include some magenta anyway, so it appears that blue "works". But it's not a primary either.

So red and blue -- by definition -- could not be primary colors for paints. This is really true!

Anyway, so in college -- I returned to college late, when I was about 25 -- I took a neon sculpture class at UNC-CH. The professor talked about how, unlike other artwork, that neon interacts with its environment. I took these words to heart and decided to make a piece of art that expressed this idea of how light interacts.

Someone else in the class had made a table for his mid-term project, so I decided to make a Table for my final project, but have red, green and blue neon tubes in it. I'd make a well in the center so objects in the well would catch the lights and mix them.

At first, I thought of covering the top with glass, but as I built it, I realized the whole fun was the playing, so I left the top open. I'd also decided on using a large salad bowl, like found in restaurants, as the well container. At first, I thought of painting it white, but I'm very glad I changed my mind and left it clear. It gives the Table an Alien Egg kind of feel. :)

I sent off the neon to be bent, and meanwhile built the Table. Once done, I started playing around, and decided to glue together all the left-over scraps of wood and shape them into random geometric shapes. As I was making the triangular pyramid, I suddenly realized that I could put this in the middle facing the tubs and it would be RGB, but give it a half-turn it would be CMY!!! I got very excited! And when I first put the whole thing together, this was the first thing I tried -- and it WORKED!! I couldn't've been more pleased!

The biggest compliment I got with the Table was when I'd see students from other classes playing in the Table. They couldn't help themselves! I felt I had succeeded in creating something that really held your attention.

It's old now, probably over 8 years old. It's been through a lot of moves, and so it's getting a bit wobbly. But I still haven't tired of showing it off to folks and giving my "standard lecture." :)

I started on a larger project for Burning Man 1999. I wanted to re-make the Color Space on a large scale: like a room. This would mean anyone standing in the room would be all colors of the rainbow! I wanted to have large geometric shapes like I had for the Table so folks could explore the space by holding up the shapes. Alas, I didn't have time to get it done. I was too wrapped up in the Firefall project and just never got it together. I do hope to build this sometime soon.

Well, that's the history of the Table.